Angela Merkel’s Exit Draws Closer

(The Bloomberg View) -- Angela Merkel’s announcement yesterday marks the last chapter of her long domination of German politics. She is stepping down as the head of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and says she won’t run for re-election. What’s less certain is whether she will see out her full term as chancellor, which might run until 2021, and whether the country’s political center can survive without her.

Merkel’s resignation as party head came in the wake of the CDU’s dismal showing in state elections in Hesse, long a CDU stronghold. The CDU’s share of the vote fell by 11 points, to 27 percent, just two weeks after voters in Bavaria delivered a similar rebuke to the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union. The center-left Social Democratic Party — part of Merkel’s ruling grand coalition — performed just as badly, while opposition parties on both political extremes gained ground.

The timing of Merkel’s announcement was a shock, but probably shouldn’t have been. Her coalition has been in disarray for months, with Merkel failing to contain internal revolts over immigration and the rise of the far right. In her press conference yesterday, Merkel called her government’s performance “unacceptable” and said giving up party leadership would “allow the federal government to function well again.”

That’s unlikely, at least in the short term. The fracturing of German politics reflects a broader trend across Europe, as voters turn against traditional centrist parties in favor of populist alternatives. Merkel’s preferred successor as party chief, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is cut from centrist cloth, but will face challenges from several conservative candidates. A messy leadership fight at the CDU’s conference in December could lead to snap general elections. That would bring Merkel’s chancellorship to a sudden and premature end.                 

In recent years, Merkel has made policy errors — her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis foremost among them — that have damaged her political brand and weakened Germany’s ability to lead. Even so, with the liberal order under threat, she has remained a figure of great courage — a voice of moderation and moral steadiness. Finding a successor of whom the same can be said might not be easy.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.